Surviving Rejection: How to Bounce Back, Stay Motivated & Keep Writing
If you’re getting rejected, you’re in fine company. George Orwell, Patrick White, Norman Mailer, D H Lawrence, and Leo Tolstoy were all knocked back by publishers. The script for M.A.S.H, one of the most successful television series in history, was rejected 21 times before a producer took it on. J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame was rejected by five publishers, and Gone With The Wind suffered 18 rejections. Dr Seuss was rejected 23 times before Vanguard Press accepted his renowned series of 44 children’s classics. Stephen King’s first five novels were rejected several times, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was rejected 18 times, Jack London received 40 rejection letters before being published, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was turned down 20 times.
Rejection is just a standard part of being a writer, but it can be deflating and demotivating. But here are some tips and facts to lift your spirits.
1. It’s good for you – really
Believe it or not, rejection can be a writer’s best friend. Pap, you say. But I was once told by Inez Baranay, whose first novel took seven years to be published, that the delay turned out to be a blessing. “Because of this,” she said, “I had years in which to develop my writing, and I didn’t suffer from a lot of the problems [of expectation] writers suffer with their second novel.” Venero Armanno, who wrote several novels before his first was published, has told me that he’s thankful that his early manuscripts were rejected. “Writing ten books is one thing; writing ten good books is another. Keeping going was really an act of desperation. I was motivated partly by fear.” (I’m reminded of James Baldwin’s statement that “it is only because the world looks on the artist’s talent with such frightening indifference that he is compelled to make his talent important”.) But Armanno “cottoned on to the Vogel prize” in the early ’80s, making it his goal to write and enter a novel each year. “All those books got rejected, but in ’85, I was shortlisted. For the ’86 Vogel, I put my heart and soul into a novel. I thought it was my best, and that year they announced there was no winner.” Many would give up, but Armanno kept going and has since had several novels published internationally.
2. Publishers are sometimes wrong
Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is not wise to solicit the opinions of publishers – they become proud if you do”. Publisher opinion is not always the sum of a writer’s worth, and many a publisher has regretted the bestseller that got away. Having rejected the Who Moved My Cheese?, Spencer Johnson’s bestselling self-help book for bureaucrats, Sandy Grant of Hardie Grant Publishing has said: “I have often been guilty of rejecting books that have gone on to be bestsellers. At least I accepted Bryce Courtenay’s first book. [But] on the other hand, I do have three titles on the current bestseller lists – that is, three that I rejected. All for perfectly good reasons.”
Many reasons for publisher rejection have little to do with the quality of writing. The manuscript might not conform with the style of books or stories the publisher produces, or the publisher may not be able to identify a market for the work. The publisher may not favour unsolicited manuscripts. Other reasons for publisher rejections are subjective or budgetary. At Overland, we receive (and welcome) thousands of fiction, poetry and non-fiction submissions every year, yet we produce only four journals annually and can accept only a limited number of manuscripts. Chances are, then, if you send us your story it will be rejected, but this doesn’t mean it’s not good. We’ve often rejected pieces that we’d like to publish if only they were a suitable length or if only their style or thematic concerns were more suited to the journal. And our selection – like that of other literary magazines – is subjective. We recently rejected a story I considered overwrought, mannered and self-indulgent. A few months later it appeared in another literary journal; a highly respected one, with a well-regarded editor. My own stories have been rejected by one literary journal and accepted by another. There’s no accounting for taste.
3. Publishing is not a genuine measure of success
We all know one: a writer whose work is a steaming pile of crap, only not as interesting. Why, we wonder, was this fool chosen as a newspaper columnist/grant recipient/writer-in-residence/anthology contributor when anyone with a millihair of brain could see that our writing is far superior? Is she/he simply bonking the right people? The truth is: possibly. As Ian Syson noted in Overland, “Little gets written, published, reviewed or publicised in Australia without some form of back-scratching, lubrication or inducement going on behind the scenes.” While this is often not the case, the point is this: getting published does not always mean you’re a good writer.
There are also frauds and flavours of the moment. (Remember, for instance, Helen Demidenko?) Yet while many people have claimed that some writers only get published because they’re left-handed, black, gender minorities living in the regions, there’s no point in using rejection to develop a persecution complex on top of your other neuroses. What’s important to remember is that while getting published is often the goal of writing, it’s counter-productive to write with publishing in mind. Asked if he’d still write if he wasn’t being published, William Burroughs reportedly replied, “Most emphatically yes. I would go on writing for company. Because I’m creating an imaginary world in which I’d like to live.” I once asked bestselling romance author Anne de Lisle the same question. She said she’s driven by the pleasure of writing as an end in itself. “When you have completed a manuscript, it was a pleasure to write it, wasn’t it? So your time wasn’t wasted [if it was rejected]. Write for the sheer pleasure of it, and it will shine in your work.” Cyrill Conolly once wrote, “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” Erica Jong reportedly said that it is “really dangerous, and ultimately destroys you as a writer, if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”
4. Ego is a dirty word
Creative writing, said William Gaddis, is “an immense act of ego. You’re not only asking people to pursue your vision, you’re also asking them to pay to do so, and to applaud”. If you cultivate a personal and professional detachment you won’t feel defeated. Remind yourself that your ability is not being rejected, and that you are not being rejected personally. Having your writing rejected simply means the work you submitted wasn’t suitable. “I can feel weak and defeated,” Baranay has said, “but my writing has a strength and resilience of its own; it is stronger than I am personally.”
5. Rejection can be inspiration
I once interviewed a guy named Neville Coleman, who had an extraordinary story about treating his rejections as inspiration. With a disadvantaged childhood and limited skills in language and grammar, Coleman nonetheless decided to become a writer. “I can remember almost to the day, 23 years ago, I got this letter for my first rejected manuscript. It read, ‘Dear Mr Coleman, It would have been easier for both of us if you had gone to school’.” He took the publisher’s advice and went back to school, upgraded his skills, and now, with 46 guide books behind him, is thankful for the advice on that rejection slip. “Rejection to me just means the chance to do a better job. You have to really believe in what you’re doing, really believe in yourself. If you don’t, how can you expect somebody to take a risk on your work?”
6. Publisher feedback can help you
It was feedback from a kindly publisher at UQ Press who gave Venero Armanno his inspiration to keep going. Taking heed of the criticism, Armanno worked on his style, and his novels now sell internationally. Publishers, producers, newspaper editors and literary journals don’t always have the time or resources to provide feedback, but if they do, it probably means your work is promising. At Overland we try to provide as much feedback as time permits – usually just a note with the rejection slip. The most common reasons for rejecting a short story is that it is overstated or overworked, with too many naff similes or too much adjectival embellishment; that it is too didactic; that it needs a good edit (and we have limited time to edit fiction); that it is too long; or that it simply has good ideas that haven’t shaped into a coherent narrative. Many a time we have loved elements of stories we have rejected. With articles and essays the most common reason for rejection is that the author hasn’t picked up a copy of Overland to see the sort of themes and styles we publish. We recently rejected a beautifully written essay on, of all things, the history of urination techniques. The author had obviously never seen a copy of Overland or even visited our website. Former HQ magazine editor Kathy Bail once told me that the most common reason she rejects an article is “unoriginality – we’ve read it before. The best features cover new ground and share new information with readers.” This is true of all media, including literary journals.
7. Talent won’t make you successful, but rejection might
Writing, says the well-worn adage, is five per cent talent and 95 per cent skills and persistence. Talent alone won’t make you a successful writer. Sue Woolfe has said, “It’s a process of enormous optimism; to keep pushing on.” Literary competition serial-winner John Holton has said that “it was through being rejected that I taught myself to revise and re-draft. Most of my early stories simply weren’t ready to face the critical eye of a competition judge. I wasted a lot of time on entry fees but I have no regrets. After about 60 [rejected] submissions things started to happen.” Holton started winning competitions, achieving a success rate of one prize for every 12 rejections. This fed his “growing competition habit … If I’m not stuffing my work into envelopes and sending it off each week I feel I’m treading water.” In three years his persistence paid off, winning prizes in 35 writing competitions, and publishing Snowdropping, a collection of his award-winning short stories.
If you have the talent, persistence will pay off. As Richard Bach, author of the oft-rejected Jonathon Livingstone Seagull, said: “The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer is that the professional didn’t quit.”